The leader of a veterans' charity that prosecutors say was a $300 million gambling operation entered a no-contest plea to running an illegally lottery on Friday, a decision that will allow him to skip prison time but likely will make him a star witness at the trials of dozens of defendants still facing criminal charges.
Jerry Bass, the national commander of Allied Veterans of the World, entered a no-contest plea to two counts of operating an illegal lottery. Bass may testify as a witness for the prosecution and defense during the trial of other defendants, which is set to start next month, said his attorney, Charles Hobbs.
Bass had faced more than 200 charges including running an illegal lottery, money laundering and possessing slot machines.
"This allows him the opportunity to move forward with his life," Hobbs said. "It's important for him to move forward and not have to deal with the specter of an eight-week trial."
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Another defendant, John Hessong, was given the opportunity to enter a pretrial diversion program.
Bass and Hessong were the latest of the 57 Allied Veterans defendants to reach some kind of agreement with prosecutors.
Allied Veterans' former commander, Johnny Duncan, last week pleaded no contest to one count of money laundering and four counts of maintaining an illegal lottery. He will be sentenced to probation at a later date.
The fact that prosecutors have reached deals with defendants is evidence that they're retreating from their case, said Mitchell Stone, an attorney for Kelly Mathis, a Jacksonville attorney whom prosecutors describe as Allied Veterans' mastermind.
Stone asked a judge on Friday to drop the charges against Mathis, saying Mathis was only doing his job as a lawyer by giving legal advice to Allied Veterans' affiliates. Stone also attacked as a "fraud" a prosecution witness who helped investigators put together their case.
"The government is invested here. Their focus now is on Kelly Mathis because he gave legal advice," Stone said. Prosecutors have been unable to prove that Mathis "made a dime outside his legal bills," he said.
But prosecutor James Schneider told Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester that Mathis was paid much higher than the usual hourly fee given attorneys. Mathis also was involved in selecting who would operate affiliates and where they would be located.
"He was heavily involved," Schneider said.
The judge didn't immediately make a decision.
The investigation into Allied Veterans led to the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll after she was interviewed during the probe. She has denied wrongdoing and wasn't charged.
The Florida Legislature banned the operations known as Internet cafes after the arrests of the 57 Allied Veterans defendants.
Allied Veterans ran nearly 50 Internet parlors in Florida with computerized slot machine-style games and gave about $6 million to veterans out of nearly $300 million in profits. Investigators said much of the money went to charity leaders, who spent much of it on boats, beachfront condos and vehicles such as Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches.
Bass never became rich as the leader of the group, Hobbs said, who added that he didn't know where the money went.
"His heart has always been in the right place," Hobbs said.